March 2010 issue

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In the summertime

With winter well and truly out of the way, it’s time providers prepared themselves for the summer onslaught. As one of the busiest and most lucrative sectors of the market, summer vacation provision sees intense competition among providers and expectations at an all time high concerning teaching, social and accommodation standards. Nicola Hancox talks to various educators about how they handle the heat

In general, a summer vacation course has to offer safe, comfortable and stimulating locations, a fun but well-thought-out language course and a programme of activities and sightseeing excursions that are animated well by staff and with optimum welfare care at all times,” states Richie Morgan, Marketing Director of EAC Language Centres in the UK.

Indeed, language providers have much to consider should they wish to move into the lucrative summer vacation market and many of those canvassed for this article reflect that they have operated in this sector for a number of years.

In the beginning
“I taught on my first summer vacation course in Cambridge for the Tjaereborg organisation in 1984 and ran my first one at Reading University in 1988 for ILC [part of the IH organisation],” notes Tony Evans at Clifton College Services (CCS) in the UK. Having specialised in the junior market for close to 18 years, it is exactly this kind of experience that led Evans to launch the summer vacation programme at Clifton College Bristol in 1999.

Organisations such as Camp Beaumont – a leading summer camp operator in the UK – and the Harven School of English [an affiliate of OISE] could be considered an authority on the summer sector, notching up over 60 years of experience between them. Others like EAC saw a window of opportunity – Morgan relates their modest beginnings as a junior activity camp specialist in the early 1990s led to the launch of a language programme soon after. “We felt our expertise with young people was well suited to this sector,” reveals Morgan, and today the company welcomes approximately 12,000 students per summer across the UK and the USA [home to EAC’s newest operation], which represents a massive 78 per cent of its total student intake.

Some operators – like IH Cape Town in South Africa – are relatively new to the sector, however. Having launched a programme in January last year, Gavin Eyre at the school explains, “South Africa is a fantastic option for vacation programmes as it has so many offerings throughout the whole country. I think that the price and value for money is a large benefit.” As yet, summer vacation bookings account for a small percentage of business at the school but Eyre is confident this stands to grow by up to 10 per cent in the next 12 months. What’s more, the exposure the country stands to gain from the forthcoming Fifa World Cup will certainly do no harm.

Meanwhile, The Language Explorer – a joint venture between Malvern House in the UK and the English Learning Centre in Cyprus – is another relatively young operation. Launched just four years ago, Business Development Manager, Ann Hawkings, explains that although competitive, the summer vacation market lacked alternative English-speaking destinations promising sun, sea and sand. “We saw a very limited variety of sea, sun and English holidays, and Cyprus is an alternative destination that has all the ingredients required for a sunny European holiday in a fresh, new destination,” she relates.

The gamble paid off and today summer bookings account for 90 per cent of all junior business, affirms Hawkings. “It is important to have new and interesting destinations to sell, and there is increasing demand in the market for quality English programmes in unusual destinations to attract new customers,” she claims.

Listening to demand
So how do schools differentiate themselves in a marketplace as saturated as the summer vacation model? As Morgan pinpointed earlier, a comprehensive language programme and a busy social agenda are paramount and providers should revise their programming on a regular basis, assessing which components work and which do not. “With market research, we do look at changing and altering our programmes on a yearly basis,” states Susan Evans from Camp Beaumont. “For example, current research has shown that the children would like specialist cooking classes. We are now in the process of writing these.” Scuba diving is another pastime that students have expressed an interest in and Evans notes that the organisation is working closely with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (Padi) to devise a scuba diving course suitable for young learners who attend the school.

At the Centre of English Studies in the UK and Ireland, staff pay close attention to the feedback garnered from students and Michael Quinn, UK Director, explains that all are encouraged to complete a feedback form upon departure. “The students are obviously the best people in the industry to get the feedback from and every year all the management and social programme staff sit down together to go through where we can improve, according to our feedback forms,” he says. A previous brainstorming session resulted in the addition of more sports-based activities like golf, football, horse riding, water-sports and tennis.

Other schools, like the Harven School of English in the UK, have taken social programming to new levels, introducing innovative additions sure to generate agent and student interest. Students can now opt to enrol on a two-week “English through drama” course, for example. Jackie Pilkington at the school notes that the programme (which has three start dates) is run by professional actors and a drama coach and she vouches it is a great way to improve student confidence and fluency. Each course
touches on tv/film acting, Shakespeare, character acting, stage combat (with a professional stuntman), musical theatre, and culminates in a trip to the Globe Theatre in London.

Pilkington says other programme additions that have worked well in the past include a circus skills and a drum & percussion workshop. “We also employed a metal worker who did lots of jewellery making,” she says.

Andrew Kinselle from LSF Montpellier in France says that when it comes to adding to their activity options, they needn’t look far for inspiration. “We take advantage of the fantastic facilities that Montpellier has to offer: bowling, ice-skating, laser games, sandy Mediterranean beaches,” he enthuses. In 2009, the school added indoor rock climbing. “It was very well received.”

Another Mediterranean destination making the most of its location is BELS in Malta. Having offered summer vacation courses at the Gozo campus for the last three years, Rebecca Brincat at the school reports they are relocating their summer programme to the main island this year. “We feel that our teenage clients would prefer to be on the main island rather than the quieter one,” she reflects.

It’s not all fun in the sun, however, and several summer schools are keen to promote alternative programming aimed at the more serious language learner. At Clifton College, for example, students aged between 13 and 18 years can opt to enrol on an academic preparation course in the summer. Meanwhile, the Thames Valley Summer School in the UK proudly states that its focus is entirely geared towards academic learning. “We are one of the few summer schools that has taken the decision to offer only exam-based courses in the majority of centres,” says Edward Orton at the school. “We have introduced Trinity courses to all centres except at Sevenoaks School, where we offer a general English course. Students have responded very positively to working towards an internationally recognised qualification,” he adds.

Non-junior client profiles
Considered a predominantly junior market, providers have taken steps to diversify their summer vacation products by catering for other client profiles. Hawkings relates that they will soon offer a family programme, ideal for parents keen to accompany their child abroad. She notes, “Clients want a vacationer programme with language programmes for adults and kids that can be combined with a bespoke family vacation.”

Family packages are also available at IP International Projects – the outfit behind several summer school operations in the UK, Germany, Spain, France and Ireland. “We’ve been offering family language programmes since 2003,” says Ute Nanninga at the school. “The whole family can spend their holidays together and improve their language skills in a relaxing environment,” she says. Parents and children attend separate courses in the morning before meeting up in the afternoon to spend some quality time with each other. However, Nanninga notes the importance of flexibility when it comes to managing these types of summer courses. “In the afternoon, it is for the parents to decide whether they spend time with their children or to take the opportunity to have some time by themselves. As the programme is very flexible and can be designed to meet the parents’ [needs], they can make their decision on a daily basis,” she says.

Solo adult vacationers are also a good revenue stream and Hawkings relates that their social agenda has activities suited to a more mature market. She lists diving, golf, jeep safari adventures, snorkelling, lazy day cruises, cave exploration, excursions to ancient ruins, trips to wineries and excursions to remoter parts of the island as just some of things students can sign up for.

Nationality make-up
In terms of nationality trends, Evans at Camp Beaumont noticed a real increase in the number of South American and Asian students last year, dispelling the notion that children/clients are unwilling to travel great distances in times of recession. Orton seconds this, stating that newer source markets, such as China, opened up for them in 2009. However, Pilkington saw Asian bookings take a nosedive, “…obviously affected by the swine flu furore,” she muses.

Meanwhile, several providers such as Clifton College and Thames Valley saw encouraging growth rates from Eastern Europe. In France, Kinselle reports the school welcomed a greater number of North American students in 2009 while Australians showed a penchant for group bookings. Interestingly, our South African and Canadian respondents were unable to pinpoint a definitive source region, citing real diversity in their nationality make-up. “The biggest shift is the amount of diversity among different nationalities attending our summer programmes for juniors,” states Robin Adams of Global Village in Canada, while Eyre at IH Cape Town says he saw increases from a whole host of regions including the USA, the UK, South America, Spain, Italy, Saudi Arabia and France. But he muses that the short-term nature of a summer vacation programmes has been particularly appealing to students in countries closer to home.

Sunrise or sunset?
The resilience of the sector was certainly tested in 2009 and providers had to counter swine flu and the global financial recession, for example. But according to respondents, the summer season fared better than most. “Demand is such that even in a difficult year such as 2009, we have to turn away students,” states Orton. Morgan adds, “Although the economic downturn can’t be dismissed, parents are usually keen to invest in their children’s education so we feel that numbers will remain constant [in the future].”
However, Nanninga notes a decline from French, Spanish and Italian markets this year. And Adams warns of competition intensifying when he says, “As the demographics of developed countries shift and the birth rates remain low, we may see a lower volume of students in this age category.”

Agents in the know

The summer season is a pressing time for agents too and as the main point of contact for parents, student and school, their role is a crucial one.

According to Pavla Pulchartova from Czech agency, Asiana, 42 per cent of their entire client base request summer courses. “Most of our students are looking for interesting destinations and a school in a good location with a lot of activities. All of them want to be either in big cities or by the sea,” she explains.

“Our high season is definitely summer,” notes Elinor Zucchet from Language Schools Worldwide in Spain, but she adds that juniors aren’t the market mainstay. Accounting for a quarter of the agency’s total summer sales, the remaining 75 per cent is made up of young adult learners, most of whom are travelling as part of the Spanish MEC scholarships, she says.

Like any industry, agencies must be prepared for the peaks and troughs in a market. Zucchet points out that the global economy has been a bone of contention for many and she says this has resulted in students being more economical with their travel plans. “The current international economic situation obviously affects this sector as well, clients tend to travel closer and spend less money on a plane ticket.”

Samira Raouda from Smart Choice Canada saw a slight decrease in summer bookings last year and she too attributes the fall to the fragile economic climate. However, she warns market fluctuations could continue well into 2010 and that schools should counter this by revising their course costings. “Due to the economic situation around the world, enrolments decreased last summer and I expect the same to happen this summer. I wish schools could lower prices from some destinations.” In extreme cases, parents are postponing their child’s trip to summer 2011, she adds.

However, Sabrina Schwarz from Academia Latinoamericana de Español – which has agencies in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia – remains optimistic about what the future holds for the summer vacation sector. She goes as far as to say it’s exactly this type of student – the summer vacationer – that will keep the entire industry churning. “Summer vacation students are the future clients, as they are likely to repeat their experience in other programmes and specialities such as business and cultural programmes,” she says.

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